After the storm

It’s been 12.5 years since the tsunami hit to coast of Sri Lanka;

8 years since the end of the civil war;

A little over 1 year since severe flooding and landslides;

A little over 1 month since the latest severe flooding and landslide to hit Sri Lanka;

And is currently experiencing the worst drought in the Northern province since 2001.

And all the while, despite the climatic devastations that this country has faced, the country has rebounded with unrelenting national support. The Facebook community shared weather alerts and flood relief information while local expats and nationals crowd-sourced a Google Maps page to highlight vulnerable areas and shelter spots.

Now, living in Galle, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the 2004 tsunami devastated the area and you wouldn’t be able to tell that hundreds of families evacuated the area just a few weeks ago. From the quiet shuffle of the akkas going to the market, shaded by their umbrellas from the burning sun, kids zipping through town on their bikes, bus drivers honking to declare their presence, and the occasional cow crossing the road, there is a sense of calm amongst the chaos and nuanced routine.

The beauty of Sri Lanka remains – even after the storm. The resilience of its people grows even stronger with each tribulation. And still, lurking in the shadows is the reality of our changing planet; where each climate crisis feels worse than the last.

The new era we’re in now is one that demands the concerted effort of humanity to protect the earth. Human suffering is a casualty of climate change, as we’ve seen in Sri Lanka, and desensitization is not an option.

I’m inspired by the community in Sri Lanka. By Canadians like Linda Bui who’ve joined forces with Sri Lankans to create the Crisis Map via Google and champion little wins after the storm. My own work in Sri Lanka looks at the impact of climate change in the tourism industry, but more broadly, on humanity. What is happening and what can be done?

Stay tuned.

Advertisements

Uncomfortably comfortable in Jaffna

We are driving from Jaffna back to Colombo along the A9 highway.

Around us the land is dry. Too dry for the thick vegetation, tea plantations and rolling hills we saw in Kandy but strong enough to host a scatter of shrubs and bushes. Our van takes us over Elephant Pass, a strip of newly paved road. Across the way is a humanitarian mine relief van – a reminder of a different time just 7 years ago. The old buildings are sparse, rooted in the earth, murmuring tales of a history come and gone. Newer buildings, still in construction, stand alongside their elders. Waiting to live out their time along the Elephant Pass. Both blend into the scene of Jaffna: simple, lonely, but still standing.

The Elephant Pass was a long contested piece of land between the Sri Lankan army and the separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) because it was the gateway to the Jaffna Peninsula.  In 2013, the Sri Lankan and Chinese government invested Rs. 19,125 million to renovate the road and allow for ease of travel. After all, by land, A9 is one of the few ways in and out of the North.

The empty, abandoned and half standing houses contradict the story that the tarmac tries to tell. The tarmac conceals a history that the houses still bear, scarred with bullet wounds and bloody with rot. But the smooth tarmac road is nice to drive on. It’s not bumpy like the roads in Delft Island or winding like the road from Kandy to Colombo. It feels comfortable driving on this road. Easy, smooth, relaxing. I could sleep. But I fight to keep my eyes awake, stare out the window, and imagine a life much different than the one I’m enjoying in this air conditioned van. I am uncomfortable.

It’s hard to find personal accounts of the war online but more and more, people are documenting their memories and locking them in between two binds. Rohini Mohan’s In the Seasons of Trouble and Frances Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead are two creative accounts of the war- telling stories from the perspective of civilians mothers, sons, fighters, teachers and priests. Stories from humans, alike. 

A memorial stands proudly after the Elephant Pass. A giant cement wall with a bullet pierced in the interior sits in the middle of a lush, green park. Quite the contradiction compared to the dry, arid landscape of Kilinochchi. There are no cars parked nearby, no tourists flashing their cameras. The memorial seems to have an interesting tale to tell: perhaps one that is apologetic of the war or perhaps one that boasts its victory over terrorism. The man dressed in an elaborate military uniform decorated with medals and badges, surrounded by common men sweeping in the park, suggests that the latter. The plaque in front of the monument confirms it. It was erected by the government to praise the Sri Lanka army’s “gallant operation to annihilate savage and brutal terrorism”. If the propaganda wasn’t strong enough, it was erected a little less than a year after the war ended. In the middle of a Tamil-majority town.  On land that belonged to top Tiger, Thamil Chevlam. On land that was also a children’s park. I am uncomfortable.

The plaque by the memorial reads: “The victory memorial is a tribute to the glorious forces and to the state leadership by His Excellencey the President and the Commander in Chief of the armed forces Mahinda Rajapaksa who was born for the grace of the nation with the guidance and coordination of the Secretary Defence Honourable Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the greatest victory achieved capturing the town of Kilinochchi on 2 January 2009 through a humanitarian operation which paved the way to eradicate terrorism entirely from our motherland and restoring her territorial integrity and the noble peace. The monument was erected in the town of Kilinochchi which was held as the terrorist stronghold in memory of the magnificent victory achieved by 57 division supported by 58 division with taskforce 2 and 3 of the Sri Lanka arm ably supported by rest of the security forces in the gallant operation to annihilate savage and brutal terrorism which has terrified this land over 20 years is masked by a cuboid and the projectile, which is penetrated this cuboid symbolizing the sturdiness of invincible Sri Lanka arm to blossom forth in a lotus of peace enwrapped in the fluttering national flag that programs the resplendent majesty of the nation’s glory.”

It’s Independence Day here in Sri Lanka. Unlike the rest of the country, there are little to no flags flying in Kilinochchi, less in Vavuniya and virtually none in Jaffna. If there are, we don’t see them. My time in the North felt ambivalent. Contradictory. Like two stories were struggling to have their voice heard.

I am uncomfortable.

Do yourself a favour: be a camp counselor

DSC03228.JPG

To be honest, it’s hard to remember why I work at Camp Trillium. There’s those moments that will break you. When the days get long and hot, when the water search alarm starts to blare and you have to run into the lake, when the kids in your cabin are intentionally trying to get on your last nerve, when there’s a dead rat in the staff lounge, when you have to bring your cabin around for a whole afternoon on theme day, when the only thing you want to do is sleep for days – but you know you have to get up in 10 minutes.

But then there’s those moments that remind you why you do what you do and makes you realize how much camp has helped you grow. Seeing a smile, that lights up the world, on my camper’s face because of something I’ve done for them makes me feel like the richest woman on the face of the earth. I feel love when we hold each other during the goodnight song and sing silly songs about Princess Pat. I feel hope when I share  intimate moments with my family or special friend – when they open up their lives, make themselves vulnerable, and share their pain and their trials with me. These are the most precious moments at camp; when they can trust you enough to share their story without fear of judgment.

There’s something magical about Camp Trillium.  Camp Trillium is my second home – at the very least. Formally, it’s a camp that provides a normalizing experience for kids and families who have experienced childhood cancer: a childhood cancer support centre, if you will. It’s a place that shapes a person; it builds character, personality and confidence. A place where children, parents and counselors alike can stand on their own and be their own. It’s a place that celebrates life, no matter how old or how young you are.

Camp has never been and will never be just another “day job”. It’s an opportunity to be part of a community that will stretch your mental, physical and emotional limits into a better person. In hindsight, I don’t think I go back to CTRL so I can “help” families and have fun with the kids. No, I go because they have made me a stronger and better person.

Peace out, A-town, down,

Sarah

IMG_4749.JPG

**********************************************************************

I wrote this during my second summer working at Camp Trillium in 2013. If you’re in Canada this summer and you’re wondering how you should spend your summer, I highly recommend applying for a position at Camp Trillium. Guaranteed one of the best choices I’ve ever made.

 

But…where are you really from?

“Miss, where are you from?”
“Canada”
Blank stare. Puzzled look.
Their eyes scream “Liar. Where are you really from?” Other times, they just use their mouths.

My response, if I don’t curtly tell them I’m from Malaysia to cut the conversation short, is something like this:

“I was born and raised in Canada. My family is from Hong Kong but my parents left in 1992 since Hong Kong was going back to China.”

Confusion ensues.

For the two and a half months I’ve been in Sri Lanka, I found it mildly annoying that I had to justify my nationality because I don’t look “Canadian”. Granted, I get that it’s normal to wonder where people are from but it’s another thing when they don’t believe me.

Recently, however, I had an epiphany that changed the way I framed the question about where I’m from:

I am proud to be Canadian and proud to be a daughter of  Hong Kong immigrants who packed their life in boxes and suitcases for a country that was anything but home. Reciting that blurb does not justify my nationality or my parent’s journey so this post is to pay homage to my #1 homies (my Mami and Baba).

Corinna and Kenny. Mom and Dad. Mami and Baba. Mommy and Daddy.

They didn’t just “leave Hong Kong”. They put their lives on hold for their kids, left their loved ones, the comfort of their own language, and the familiar streets they call home for a cold, new country. But I guess that’s the definition of compassion and my parents radiate compassion like the Sri Lanakan sun does heat.

I can’t imagine what life must have been for them but I assume there was a mix of fear, excitement and anxiety for a few years.

But somehow they persevered.

Baba worked in a factory before landing a job in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto then transferred to Trillium Health Centre in Mississauga as the Pain Management Coordinator. Mami stayed at home to take care of us until I, the baby of the family, was old enough. Even then, she worked night shifts at the nursing home so she could spend more time with us during the day and work while we slept. Now I’m proud to say she’s risen the ranks to become the assistant director of the nursing home.

Because they worked hard for everything, nothing was ever wasted (they’re also hoarders – sorry I had to expose you guys). Since there were 4 little Tams, we were each only allowed to have 3 birthday parties growing up. Christmas presents were never lavish. Celebrations were always humble. I never understood why we couldn’t buy what we wanted, even if it was something small. Little did I know, they were saving that money to invest in our education.

Josh is moving to Australia in January for medical school, Ben recently got married to the beautiful Louisa and is building his career as a doctor and Anna, who got married last year to the ever-so-patient Dave, is a teacher, role model, and mentor to her students and friends (including me). Mami and Baba navigated across the country and fought against the tide to give us the life we have today.

DaveandAnnaWedding-361

In my mind, my parents are incomparable beyond belief and they should be celebrated. Yes I am proud to be Canadian but I am also grateful to have parents who sacrificed so much for their family.

Though oceans away, the next time someone asks me where I’m from, I’ll be thinking of you, Mami and Baba.

20150711_214433

Confessions of a Chinese-Canadian girl living in Sri Lanka

“Do they like Asians there?”, I asked.
Pause.
“No, not really”, she bluntly replied.

That was 6 weeks ago and I distinctly remember thinking that I could handle the stares, the stereotypes, and the judgement in Sri Lanka. I passed the “Chinois! Chinois!” test twice with flying colours in Morocco and beat the “Jambo….Mzungu!” level in Uganda. The big boss, Sri Lanka, would be a walk in the park.

What I got right was that the racial challenge in Sri Lanka was going to be the big boss. What I got wrong was the fact that it was going to be a marathon.

When I walk down the streets in Sri Lanka, I can feel eyes on me like a hawk (though nothing will beat the stares I got in the Mumbai airport). Half of me wants to wither away and the other half of me wants to yell at them and say “YES I’M NOT WHITE MOVE ON”. 100% of the time, though, I try to ignore the stares and, in turn, stare at anything else but them. I’ve come to learn that ignoring something is my speciality.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m going to be here for 7.5 months instead of the month I had spent at a time in Uganda and Morocco. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t have as strong of a local support network that I had on my Global trips. Or maybe it’s the pressure to be perfect working for my first international NGO. Or maybe it’s just my brain weaving tales of self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all the time that I feel like an outcast as a Chinese-Canadian girl. Working in an office that advocates for gender and ethnic equality makes me feel secure, hanging out with the staff makes me feel valued, and making new friends is exciting. It almost makes me feel like…a white girl…?

Growing up as a Chinese girl in the classic Canadian suburb meant that I grew up identifying myself more as a white Canadian girl than a Chinese-Canadian girl. I grew up abandoning my race, culture, and values because I was embarrassed to be identified as one. In time, living in Canada was easy because I found a way to identify as both, as a Chinese-Canadian, who has a knack for living a “white life” – and I’m okay with it.

But the reality is this. Though I am a Westerner, I am not white. I am a Chinese-Canadian girl, who is, on the surface-level, very different. I have stereotypes attached to the colour of my skin, jokes cracked about the shape of my eyes, and a preconceived notion that I should be good at math, be a business woman, and, potentially, lie and cheat my way for money. I am not white, and I will never be able to know the benefits or drawbacks of being one.

Here in Sri Lanka, women are second-class to men. Foreigners, especially female foreigners, are at a disadvantage because of our “loose morals” and tendency towards prostitution. And race can, unfortunately, put a damper on things

I will feel the consequences of my race but I will try my best to chip away at the stereotypes.

After chatting with my roommate, she reminds me that we should be in it to win it for all of the ladies in Sri Lanka (and beyond) who don’t have a voice to fight against patriarchy. Despite my skin colour, her skin colour, or anyone else’s for that matter, we are all human. The things our eyes have seen, the stories our ears have heard, and, even more, the stories that we are writing for ourselves have so much more value than the colour of our skin or the shape of our eyes.

Yes, it has, at times, been hard in Sri Lanka and I’m sorry to report to you that it’s not all unicorns, rainbows and fairies. Regardless, at the end of the day, I’m grateful for the people I’ve met so far, this beautiful country, and my supportive friends and family.

If you’re following my journey in Sri Lanka, do be reassured about this:

It will be hard and tough as balls (do people say that?). But if you think I’m only going to put 50% because I’m a Chinese-Canadian in Sri Lanka, you are hella wrong. I will find my way and I will put in 100%. And then 50% more.

That’s 150%.

See, I am good at math.

Personal mandate: Prove the stereotype wrong.

image

For the love of food: cultural appropriation edition

Preparing Chinese food is a lengthy process that takes patience and impeccable skill. It takes a lot of gung fu, hard work and skill, to conjure up the richness of the flavours and teach them to dance. But somewhere along the way, the art of Chinese food has been discounted to “a genuine, authentic, Asian cuisine experience for $6.99 at your nearest Manchu Wok!!”

images
It’s only authentic Chinese food if it comes in a box like this

I’m sure many Canadian immigrants can relate to the “staple dish syndrome”: Pad Thai from Thailand, pho from Vietnam, curry from India, spaghetti from Italy, and dim sum – with all the glory of fung zhao (chicken feet) and ngau pat yip (yes, you guessed correctly: tripe, aka a cow’s stomach chamber) – from China.

A recent article from The Washington Post by Ruth Tam looks at the cultural appropriation of food. What happens when the same dish that immigrant families were mocked for is sought after?

That’s exactly what Ruth asks: “How do you feel when white people shame your culture’s food – and then make it trendy?’ More than a last name, Ruth and I share similar musings as our cultural dishes shifted from “weird, smelly, and disgusting” to “authentic, genuine, and exotic”. Growing up in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood, I had my fair share of friends who would comment on the way I smell after

The best meals are more than the sum of their ingredients; their flavors tell the stories of the rich cultures that created them. When the same respect is afforded to immigrant food as traditional “American” food, eating it will sate us in more ways than one.

I urge you, travelers and foodies alike, to embrace the fullness of different cultures but don’t let it be defined by an “authentic experience”,  a “genuine temple”, or an” exotic food”. A lesson I will indefinitely carry in the next 8 months.

For the love of food: Sri Lankan edition

Earlier today, one of my friends posted a blog about the top 5 Vietnamese dishes she wants to try on her 8 months academic placement. Naturally, we both share the love of food (more specifically, the dumplings at Grace & Healthy Dumplings in Waterloo) so I decided to create a Sri Lankan edition.

Recently I got asked what types of food I’ll be seeing in Sri Lanka. My response? The most stereotypical (and potentially wrong) answer: “Oh you know, curry and stuff”.

It’s time for me to right my wrongs and do a little bit of research. I present to you 9 staple dishes and drinks of Sri Lanka that I am very, very excited to try.

1. Sri Lankan samosas

6298116783_e81d84abd3_o

I love samosas. I can’t wait to try Sri Lankan samosas. I’m so excited.

2. Appam

6298121845_8fd08ee7d4_o

Appam (egg hopper) is an iconic Sri Lankan breakfast or dinner food made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk. I’m pretty sure my taste buds haven’t experienced anything of this nature so I’m excited to have my first bite!

3. (Egg/Cheese/Vegetarian/Meat) Kottu

egg kottu
Egg kottu

Kottu is a popular Sri Lankan stir fry dish with shredded pieces of godamba roti (oily fried piece of thin dough), spices,  and your choice of egg, cheese, vegetables, or meat. According to Sri Lankan foodies, kottu roti is comparable to the hamburger – it’s tasty, impossible to resist, and always available. (I think I might have to limit myself to only 1 kottu a week).

Check out this video and get ready to be hungry!

4.  Kukal mas curry 

kukal mas curry

I believe that I’ve perfected the rice-to-sauce ratio so I can have a delicious bite every time. With that said, I’m excited to try to kukal mas curry, Sri Lankan chicken curry! Fun fact: they say no chicken curry will taste the same throughout the country because of the different recipes passed down so it’s a dish

5. Wood apple juice

wood apple juice

Up until today, I’ve never heard of wood apple. It’s hard exterior is similar to a coconut and the interior looks something like a giant raisin. One blogger describes it as this: “the outer shell smells a bit like rotting blue cheese mixed with dirty socks. The inside of the fruit looks a bit like diarrhea, but tastes similar to a tamarind”. Check out more here.

6. King coconut

6298119447_b3db2d8965_o

What better way to cool down from the Sri Lankan sun and humidity than with a king coconut? At the Kitchener/Waterloo Multicultural festival, I ended up paying a whopping $12 for fresh coconut. A little steep in my opinion. In Sri Lanka, these bad boys cost 30-40 LKR ($0.30-$0.40 CAD).

7. String hoppers

String-Hoppers

String hoppers are rice-flour noodles that are formed to make a “noodle pancake”. Toss in some coconut curry gravy and it’s ready to go!

8. Shrimp fitters

20140802-sri-lankan-food-shrimp-vadai-naomi-tomky

I grew up eating some interesting (and often times, questionable) Chinese dishes so seeing these shrimps together in a fritter isn’t disgusting – it looks delicious!

9. Coconut arrack and ginger beer

15820029814_e1aa85a2a8_o

Coconut arrack and ginger beer: I imagine it to be delicious. What is arrack? Arrack is a Sri Lankan spirit, distilled from naturally-fermented nectar of coconut flowers. People say that it’s a must try with Elephant Ginger Beer…so I must try!

******************************************************************************************

I hope to try new things when I move to Sri Lanka for 8 months in September. As long as there isn’t cilantro, sheep eyeballs (that’s another story), dogs/cats, or gizzards, it’s fair game.  Know of any good places to eat in Sri Lanka? Comment below!